Archive for January, 2012

Kids Captured in Time

The family is sending pictures of my niece—the firstborn—in formal wear. It’s unsettling. It’s not her first high school dance, but it is the first one to show the transformation: a pack of sixteen-year-old girls in lounge wear coifing each other in a ring of lipstick and toe nail polish, hightop hairstyles and stacks of iPhones, until finally, dreadfully, their adulthood. Here they are assembled beautifully and stylishly with their dates; her date, an all-state football player with a thick neck and a carved Adam’s apple, whose blond swoop of hair tells me he’s a quarterback and whose confident smile and smirking eyes tells me he has an inkling of an idea of what we know now we were capable of then. And there she is, my 5’11’’ porcelain-skinned, red-haired niece: she wears a shoulderless, form-fitting cobalt blue dress that stops, she might say, mid-thigh. That is a generous estimation for a piece of fabric that could barely cover her Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal, which, incidentally, she still has. And this is what unnerves me: They have no idea that they’re still kids.

My sister, her mom, said they’re like Chihuahuas who don’t know they’re small dogs.

And yes, these aspersions are cast from only a few photographs. She and her date are not nuzzling or anything in the images, but they’re close enough to elicit a warning from my brother, the Godfather. These comments are jokes, our familial duty; but they are jokes steeped in truth.

These images were not what I intended to write about. I had written about the return of the books we keep for our kids, The Book of Calvin and The Book of Maria. They’d been left behind at my in-laws two weeks ago and, in that time, I had the urge to add an entry. It doesn’t happen as often as it once did—these books that hold the stamp of their footprints at birth don’t even get monthly action anymore. Still, once missing, the books were missed. Their absence made them more relevant, a reminder how pleased I was that me, my wife, and our family can slow down for posterity’s sake and write a note, however infrequently.

The correlation between this and my niece in her dress with her pigskin-playing date was not apparent until now: you hold onto some things because you have to let go of others. Kid or not, my niece’s decisions are hers to make. And we write in their books for us, to remember. It will be a long time—if ever—for those books to mean as much to them as they do to us. Like my niece’s pictures.


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I Snore

I snore. I try not to. I try to sleep on my side. I’ve tried sleeping on my stomach but it’s like being in a headlock. So I snore. It’s worse when I’m exhausted or if I’ve been drinking. It was at its worst last weekend, sharing a cheap hotel room in Venice Beach with my two buddies.

They’ve known my snoring since college. It was occasional then. It’s guaranteed now. I promised I’d sleep on my side. Get headlocked. We’d been on the beach all afternoon, on the boardwalk all night. I was tired; I’d been drinking. I snored.

We should’ve known better than to pinch pennies by stuffing three guys in one room. We’re 36. The room was so cramped, the beds so close, that my one friend kicked me whenever I started. Our other friend left in the middle of the night. Got his own room. No one slept well. They were annoyed. I was furious. I fucked you and fucked off more than the homeless drunks outside our hotel the night before. It was 7 a.m. Vacation. No kids.

I was pissed because I tried and I failed and I knew what they felt. Nothing tries one’s patience more than being kept awake by a snorer. Thoughts turn violent. The personality you love in waking hours is, at nighttime, a contemptible fool who needs medical help. Now. What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this? Look at you. Your eyebrows. The ear hair. Get. Help. Asshole.

Enter night

I know the bitterness. My brother snores. If we ever share a room, I know to get to sleep before him or spend the night in the tub. My dad has The Machine. The Mask. The CPAP. His friends sang of its sandman virtues. At first, even in the afternoon, he’d have creases in his cheeks and the bags of his eyes were purple and puffy. After more than a year and many adjustments, he has given it up. My brother and I can’t call him Lord Vader, anyway. We fear the futuristic mirror.

Dad has obstructive sleep apnea. It’s severe. Passages to the airway collapse in your sleep, you stop breathing, your oxygen levels drop, your brain shocks your body into action. You gasp. Hack. Sounds more like drowning than snoring. Then you’re back to normal. You keep snoring until the airway collapses again. This can happen dozens of times per minute. You can’t dream. You’re chronically tired. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute says it can lead to other chronic illnesses, the least of which is your bedfellows hating you.

They were amused at why I was so pissed. I spewed the thoughts that had been churning since 4am, when it dawned on me that I’d ruined everyone’s night and I would henceforth be drowsily aware of every kick to my kidneys and every bark of my name. Never again would we share a room. I’d get the breathe-right strips; I’d prop myself up; I’d get breakfast.

How does my wife do it, they wondered. She falls asleep first. I’m not drinking. She says it’s not that bad otherwise. The only time I share a room with you meatheads is when we’re drinking, I told them. Self-preservation of the friendship.

The next night we got a suite. I got the pull out. From the bedroom, door closed, my one friend said it sounded like I was getting choked, dying. Sounds like apnea. Sounds like I can no longer sleep on it.


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Rewriting Mom

Mom remains fragmentary, incomplete.

Marianne Gianninni 1943-1997

Mom died 15 years ago. The recognition of all that has passed and all she has missed doesn’t register much. The awareness of her absence is a random and ephemeral one, wishing for her to see grandchildren huddled on a stoop with an ice cream or imagining her at the head of the table shepherding the conversation and the gravy. It passes with nothing more than a melancholic smile. Her absence, our loss, is something you learn to live with, like baldness, except Sy Sperling can’t bring her back. It is not sad, or a relief, or unfair; after 15 years it is no emotion. It just is.

What might be sad, I realized this morning, is that I remember her dying more than her living. Perhaps I remember that final part of her narrative with a profound clarity because I had full access to it: I shared it. The wretched fact of grieving is the selfishness of it. Yes, we mourn the living that the dead have missed, but we mostly mourn the living we would have had with her. To most remember her dying is lamentable, yes, but ultimately it is a choice. The act of writing has made it a choice.

I was 21 when she left, and she had been in remission twice in three years, so her illness forms my earliest and strongest memory as an adult: what is more adult than experiencing death? The death of a parent is an indelible mark regardless of age. Still, not long afterward, I wrote a novel about a young man finding his place after the death of his mother. Emotionally autobiographical fiction. It took a few years. It hasn’t been published. I’ve rewritten it a dozen times, and after each rewrite I swear that it’s done, I’m done, and I will not return. I’ve rewritten it enough that I cannot discern between the memory of the fiction and its drafts or the original memory that spawned it. I’ve rewritten a novel and a half in the past two years, scores of essays and stories, a play, a children’s book, stuff, more money-writing jobs than I’d care to remember, but every year, around either this time or in September, that old novel reappears. Talks to me. Says what if. How bout. You could. This might. Makes me drop whatever I was working on and return to it with a zeal and determination that proves this project is the most important. I fear this cycle will recur until it’s published. I fear it never getting published. I fear it getting published. The cardinal rule of Creative Writing 101 should be: thou shalt not write about thy mother. If you do it right and are honest, it will upset her; if you aim to please, you’ll fail her, the audience, and yourself.

Why persist? Duty to her memory? To my memory? To keep her alive, in her dying state and in my living memory, in this perpetually incomplete narrative? It’s pathological. It’s felt embarrassing before, to put this ahead of more pertinent and fresher projects, to sideline those when I know this is the one that needs indefinite sidelining. Yet I can’t help the compulsion.  By returning to it, am I keeping her dying in my memory?

Possibly. Or maybe I’m still struggling to know the woman who was Mom. It’s a matter of perception. The old novel is more fiction than before, and it also has more true moments of her living than before. Of her life I have evocative pictures of her, the random memories, my old journals, and the stories from her sister and my siblings. And we have remembrances, like today, when my step-mom organized a family breakfast followed by our annual Catholic Mass dedicated to Mom. Despite all of this, Mom remains fragmentary, incomplete. Not just by a life cut short by numerical standards but also by the very human limitation of how well we can know someone, even if we were birthed by them. There exists a longing to piece it all together and suspend it in certain time, like a novel, and look at it whole. Keep it on my nightstand. Bookmark my favorite parts. This, I know, is an impossibility.  I know, too, that she lives on in all who remember her. And that’s fine. But in the act of gathering the pieces and dredging my memory and rewriting our past and seeing how it all fits—no longer how I fit into it but how she fit into her world—if I can get to know her better, even a shade more than what I know now, it’s time well spent.

Dawes and Mumford & Sons perform “When My Time Comes”

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A New Year’s Wish

Happy New Year



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